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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Afghanistan's influential neighbour, India

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Posters of Bollywood films in a Kabul cinema hall
Bollywood films and actors are very popular in Afghanistan

If you want to go to the cinema in Kabul you've got to like Bollywood.

Film buffs here cannot get enough of the Indian export - in the movie halls or through the ripped-off DVDs on sale across the country.

Indian culture is close to people's hearts here, and Indian money is now being seen to have an impact on their lives.

"We've pledged $600m altogether on infrastructure, telecoms, health, education, humanitarian assistance, institutions - a whole cross section," said Sandeep Kumar, number two at the Indian embassy in Kabul.

"We're spending more than $110m in the power sector, have given three Airbuses to the national airline, and are building 218km [135 miles] of road at the moment in the south."

The difference between India and many countries who have offered cash, is that India money is already being spent.

The large blue sign for Habibia High School stands firm outside the huge new three-storey building that is packed with students - the small print boasting the name of the proud donors: "Renovated by Government of India."

Indian presence

Inside in a calculus class, every desk is full and every gaze flicks between an exercise book and their teacher Ghafoor Mirza, an institution in this famous Kabul school.

Ghafoor Mirza
Mr Mirza is happy that India helped restore the prestigious school

Three presidents and a king came here to study, but decades of fighting took its toll and all that was left was a bombed-out building - pupils studied sitting in the dust under tents with few text books.

"This was a very good school but it was destroyed in the civil war and was just a skeleton," said Mr Mirza after setting an exercise.

"Now it's very good, and we are very happy. It is not only the building the Indians have brought - they have provided us with electricity, water, furniture and everything.

"We are happy because there is a history of friendship between Afghanistan and India and they have given us help like a brother would give to a brother."

At the end of the longest and straightest road in Kabul is the old presidential palace - its shelled-out gables and twisted roof are a monument to the war which tore this city apart.

In its shadow is a small patch of land with another marble plaque - this time marking where the Indian government will build the country's new parliament.

But the question many are asking is whether India is more concerned with stalking the corridors of power than simply constructing them.

'Cosy' relationship

Afghanistan and India had always been close - until Delhi backed the Russians during the Soviet occupation.

But could this just be a good opportunity to buy political influence when the old enemy Pakistan is not on the best of terms with the region's newest democracy?

Former Afghan Presidential palace, now venue for Parliament
Does India just seek to construct a parliament here or more

"Pakistan does not like the Indians being close to Afghanistan," argues Afghan political scientist Professor Wadir Safi.

"India has two unfriendly states in its neighbourhood: the People's Republic of China and Pakistan.

"That is why they are very keen to have good relations with Afghanistan, so it can be a bridge for them to the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union."

Where, of course, resources such as oil, gas and minerals could be very useful to a country with such strong regional ambitions.

President Hamid Karzai's recent visit to Pakistan was followed by a frosty exchange of views between the two countries, and many Afghans believe Islamabad is at the very least turning a blind eye to Taleban forces attacking across a border that is as long as it is porous.

Mr Karzai's current visit to India is bound to be a far cosier affair.

Ten ministers and a delegation of business leaders have joined the trip to cement relations between the two countries and set up economic partnerships to bring much needed investment.

Regional security will no doubt be brought up in conversation and India will be griping about Pakistan's attitude toward Islamic militants in Kashmir, while Afghanistan will moan about the border unrest.

President Karzai cannot live without Pakistan, but after strong words from President Bush on his recent visit, Islamabad will still be smarting.

As ever, Afghanistan is in the middle of it all, but all aid is good aid and all new business is welcome - this time the country's making the most of it.

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